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Jazz in the Round

Partisans 2On the last Monday of each month the broadcaster and radio producer Jez Nelson, probably best known as the front man of the BBC’s Jazz on 3, presents live jazz in an environment just about as close to ideal as it is possible to imagine. The series is called Jazz in the Round, and it takes place at the Cockpit Theatre in London NW8, where an audience of about 100 is seated on all four sides of the room while the musicians perform in the centre, on the floor.

If you choose to sit at the front, you can be close enough to lean over and turn the page of the pianist’s sheet music, or to stretch out a leg and operate the guitarist’s foot-pedal. It’s a remarkably intimate environment, and on both my visits I’ve been struck by the positive way the musicians respond to the unusual proximity of listeners who demonstrate a high degree of appreciation and concentration.

Nelson arranges each night in three parts. There’s a group of young musicians to start with, then a solo performer, and finally the headline act. This week the opening set was by a quintet playing the music of the alto saxophonist Tommy Andrews, drawn from their debut album, The Crux (here‘s a taste). Andrews graduated from the Guildhall in 2010 and formed the band the following year; his pieces are impressionistic, quite intricate, and show considerable promise.

The solo set came from the extrovert trombonist Ashley Slater, who has worn many hats since coming to notice with Loose Tubes in the 1980s. His idea of a solo performance was to bring along an iPad loaded with three backing tracks, over which he played (and sang a bit). There was a funky one, and a reggae one, and a townships one. He was generously received, but it didn’t seem quite the right response to the opportunity.

Last came Partisans, the quartet of the saxophonist Julian Siegel, the guitarist Phil Robson, the bass guitarist Thaddeus Kelly and the drummer Gene Calderazzo, formed 18 years ago to play the compositions of Siegel and Robson. This appearance marked the release of their fifth album, Swamp (Whirlwind), which shows them to be still exploring the possibilities available to such open-minded and spirited musicians (here‘s their new promotional documentary).

They played five of the album’s eight varied and carefully detailed pieces, infusing them with the fire and the willingness to tolerate rough edges that can be the difference between a record and a live performance. By enabling the players to face each other all the time, thereby focusing and intensifying the element of conversation, the in-the-round format seemed to open the music up.

If you look at the top of the picture, by the way, you’ll see a woman at an easel, painting Partisans as they play. That’s Gina Southgate, who produces a canvas for each performance. She’s been a fixture since the beginning of the series.

Now coming up to the end of its third year, Jazz in the Round has built a loyal and highly appreciative audience. Here‘s a very nice clip from the first edition, back in January 2012, featuring Black Top: Orphy Robinson, Pat Thomas and Steve Williamson. Orphy was in the audience this week. It’s that kind of gig.

Girl on the beach

Marilyn & Brian Wilson

It’s 26 years since a few dozen people in a humble church hall in an unfavoured West London suburb — the readers of Beach Boys Stomp, a British fanzine, assembled for their annual convention — were given the biggest and best surprise of their lives when Brian Wilson himself stepped on to the stage and sat down at an electric keyboard. This was 1988, and Brian had been in semi-seclusion for years. He was in the process of re-emerging with his first solo album, but his extreme nervousness was apparent that afternoon, even in front of probably the smallest audience he had faced since the Beach Boys turned professional.

To his listeners’ astonishment and delight, Brian performed three songs: “Night Time” and “Love and Mercy”, from the new album, and “Surfer Girl”, which would have been high on any true fan’s list of requests. Moved by the warmth of the response, he signed autographs for practically everyone before taking his leave. The triumphant Pet Sounds tour of 2000, the Queen’s golden jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 and the amazing premiere of Smile in 2004 lay far ahead in an unimaginable future.

Marilyn Rovell was the girl whom he was dating when “Surfer Girl” was still a brand-new song, and who was with him when he wrote all the rest of the great stuff. They started going out in 1962 and married two years later. She and her sister Diane and their cousin Ginger Blake became the Honeys, then Spring (without Ginger); both groups were produced by Brian. She kept the famous house on Bellagio Road in Bel-Air, where a sandbox surrounded the piano on which her husband created his masterpieces. They were divorced in 1979, but their daughters, Carnie and Wendy, had hits with their group Wilson Phillips, in which they were joined by Chynna Phillips, the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips; they sold eight million copies of their debut album in 1990.

Marilyn remarried 15 years ago and still lives in Los Angeles, where she works part-time selling real estate. Yesterday she and her second husband, Daniel Rutherford, arrived at the parish hall of Our Lady of the Visitation in Greenford, Middlesex, as the guests of honour at Beach Boys Stomp‘s’s 35th annual convention. Marilyn answered questions, signed autographs, posed for photographs, and made sure she said hello to every single one of those present.

This was her second visit to the convention (the first was in 2005) and it was apparent that she keeps her memories of the time she spent with Brian in clear perspective. Most of those memories, of course, are warm. “Everything was always exciting,” she said when talking about the pre-Pet Sounds era. “He’d wake up every morning with a new idea of what to do next. He was a remarkable man — inspired and inspiring.”

She loved singing backgrounds on some of the Beach Boys’ later records, particularly Carl Wilson’s songs, such as “Feel Flows” and “The Trader”. She also mentioned “Funky Pretty”, which was written by Brian with Mike Love and Jack Rieley . “It wasn’t because I was great or anything,” she said. “It would be when they needed a part.”

But she doesn’t try to pretend that those years were one long beach party. When she talked about Spring’s 1973 United Artists album (here is its best and strangest track, Brian’s “Sweet Mountain”, and here is its sweetest, Marilyn singing lead on Carole King’s “Now That Everything’s Been Said”), the mention of its co-producer, David Sandler, a friend of Brian’s, hinted at the problems she confronted in her day-to-day life with a troubled genius. “I liked David a lot,” she said, “because I didn’t have to worry about him giving drugs to Brian.”

I hadn’t seen Marilyn since the spring of 1973, when she invited me to the Bel-Air house to spend an afternoon with Brian. The sandbox had gone by then and he wasn’t in great shape (there was a large dollop of what I recall as being raspberry Reddi-whip on his tea-time ice cream), but he sat down at the piano and sang the full version of “Heroes and Villains”, which was a revelation, and a funky arrangement of the semi-traditional “Shortnin’ Bread”. That song turned up a few years later on the group’s L.A. (Light Album) but the version Brian recorded for the unreleased Adult Child project (it’s here) is closer to the sound I remember from that day. And, of course, he wanted to talk about Phil Spector, and to make sure I heard “Be My Baby” a few times before I left.

Marilyn was invited to be become involved in Love and Mercy, the new biopic starring Paul Dano as the young BW and John Cusack as the older version, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. She declined, as she declines most such requests. Not because she’s hoarding her memories for her own purposes — although there might be a book one day — but because experience tells her that these projects tend to deliver 50 per cent of what really happened and 50 per cent of what some outsider wants to think happened.

“Who knows what’s real and what’s not real?” she said. “I know.”

* The photograph of Marilyn and Brian Wilson in 1965 is from the cover of the Beach Boys Party! album.

City of Poets

City of Poets 3City of Poets is the name of a quintet led by two musicians from whom we’ll be hearing a lot more: the French pianist Cédric Hanriot and the American trumpeter Jason Palmer. The group is completed by three aces, the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, the bassist Michael Janisch and the drummer Clarence Penn, and they appeared at the Pizza Express in London last night to perform their current project, a series of pieces titled The Hyperion Suite, jointly written by the two leaders and inspired by a sequence of novels — The Hyperion Cantos — by the science fiction writer Dan Simmons.

Each piece, Palmer told the audience, is based on one of the seven “modes of limited transposition” devised by Olivier Messaien. But the themes and settings he and Henriot devised are instantly beguiling and, although complex, not remotely academic: this is music with its roots in the Miles Davis Quintet of 1963-68, a combination of intellectual rigour, technical brilliance and graceful lyricism.

The solos were uniformly full of substance, and the structures ever-changing. The opener, for instance, began with a bass solo, moved into a classic trumpet-tenor-and-rhythm head, shifted into piano-trio mode, changed to a three-way improvisation for the two horns and the drums, morphed first into a tenor-bass-drums trio and then (with the addition of trumpet) into a pianoless quartet, and went out with what sounded like a variation on the first head.

Of the individuals, the North Carolina-born trumpeter was hugely impressive. If Ambrose Akinmusire is this generation’s Booker Little, Palmer might be the Freddie Hubbard, with the same bright strength but greater mobility and variation of phrasing, timbre and attack. Henriot comes out of Herbie Hancock, on the Bill Evans side: a player who never overplays his hand, but who, late in the evening, produced one solo that built to the sort of rocking climax in which Bobby Timmons specialised during his days with the Jazz Messengers.

McCaslin delivered several well-turned solos in the post-Shorter mode favoured by the majority of today’s young tenorists, and Janisch again showed his pronounced gifts of thoughtfulness and invention. I don’t understand why he switched for two tunes to the bass guitar, dialling in a distracting echo effect during his solos, but otherwise he was immaculate.

As for the phenomenal Penn, as sensitive and propulsive a drummer as you could wish to have in your band, he did something remarkable: nearing the climax of a McCaslin solo, he began a broken-rhythm figure on the snare drum, increasing its volume and stuttering intensity (the effect was like that of one of Art Blakey’s tidal-wave press rolls, refracted through smashed glass) until suddenly landing in intuitive unison with the saxophonist, like a pair of Olympic gymnasts nailing a dismount from the uneven bars with perfect synchronisation.

Full of such moments of delight and surprise, the evening was recorded for release on Janisch’s Whirlwind label. I can’t wait to hear it again.

* In the lo-fi photograph (left to right): Cédric Hanriot, Donny McCaslin, Mike Janisch and Jason Palmer.

Northern Soul

Northern Soul 2Elaine Constantine’s much anticipated feature film Northern Soul is finally due for its release in mid-October, some 17 years after the project started to form in her mind. The soundtrack album arrived the other day: a CD of 27 songs featured in the movie, a second disc of another 27 favourites for which she couldn’t find room, and a DVD including interviews with the director and Richard Searling, the DJ at the Wigan Casino.

Listening to Constantine’s choice of tracks revived an old yearning to have been born five or 10 years later, to have stayed in the Midlands, and to have taken part in the Northern Soul phenomenon. In the 1960s we didn’t know, as we danced to “Candy” by the Astors, or “Earthquake” by Bobbi Lynn, or “1-2-3″ by Len Barry, that we represented merely the prelude to something much bigger. Now I listen to the records I never danced to, the stuff dug out by DJs in the early ’70s — the Fuller Brothers’ “Time’s a-Wastin'”, David and the Giants’ “Ten Miles High” or the Ad Libs’ “Nothing Worse Than Being Alone” — and experience a strange pang of thwarted belonging.

The inherent poignancy of so many Northern Soul records springs from an undertow of regret in the lyric or the voice, carrying the suggestion of a moment of pure happiness that can never be recaptured. There’s no better example than one of the most famous of them all, Tobi Legend’s”Time Will Pass You By”. “Life is just a precious minute, baby,” she sings. “Open up your eyes and see it, baby. Give yourself a better chance, because time will pass you right on by.” (A few years ago my Guardian colleague Laura Barton wrote an eloquent column about it.) Many years later the singer was filmed, miming to the record. Scroll through the comments under the YouTube clip and eventually you’ll come to this, posted five years ago by someone called “cherry blossom”:

This song takes me back to the last moments of dancing and grabbing your bag to get home on the train to Wigan. Remember oldies night and the nicotine and sweat dripping off the ceiling. Feeling everyone was your pal. Classic days.

“Feeling everyone was your pal.” What a wonderful memory to have. It lives on in this special music, in which the whirl of authentic emotion is all that counts.

The clip of Legend (real name: Bessie Gupton) was filmed at the behest of Ian Levine, the former Blackpool Mecca DJ, who tracked her down in Canada in 2007. When I was at Island in the mid-’70s, Ian had approached me with the idea of releasing some recordings he’d been making in Chicago with American singers. They included Barbara Pennington’s “Running in Another Direction”, which we put out. Sadly, it turned out to be not the sort of thing the Island promotion and sales machine was good at handling in 1976. I remember Evelyn Thomas’s “Weak Sport” and L.J. Johnson’s “Your Magic Put a Spell on Me” as being the other finished masters Ian brought with him. He went on to channel his productions in the direction of Hi-NRG dance music, with considerable success.

Anyway, Constantine’s soundtrack album contains some great stuff, running the gamut from Shirley Ellis’s sublime “Soul Time” to a fabulous eccentricity like The Crow’s “Your Autumn of Tomorrow”. I was extremely pleased to be reminded of “I Surrender”, by the wonderful Eddie Holman. It’s not a Northern Soul greatest hits collection, but there are plenty of those around. It’s more interesting and personal than that, and it certainly whets the appetite.

I hope the new film’s thunder hasn’t been stolen by Keeping the Faith, the excellent documentary shown on BBC2 a few weeks ago (you can find it here). I’m sure that, after all these years, there’s room for both approaches to a fascinating subculture that refuses to lie down and die. And if she can get close to the mood captured three years ago by this fine Dean Chalkley short, Young Souls, she’ll be all right.

* The photograph above is a still from Northern Soul. Details of the film, including the trailer, are on its website: http://www.northernsoulthefilm.com

Bob Crewe 1930-2014

Bob CreweBob Crewe, who died last week aged 83, was one of the architects of 1960s pop music. Here’s my Guardian obituary. It’s interesting that of all the records he made, among his favourites was one that, from the outside, must have looked highly unpromising: the Four Seasons’ 1966 version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”.

Written in 1936 for the musical Born to Dance, the song received its definitive reading 20 years later, when Frank Sinatra included it on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, a hugely successful album. Sinatra had been featuring it in concert for a decade, but the recorded version benefited from Nelson Riddle’s finger-snapping arrangement, which builds up to Milt Bernhart’s wild trombone solo. It catches Sinatra at the very zenith of his ring-a-ding-dingness.

So it was brave of Bob Gaudio, a member of the Four Seasons and Crewe’s songwriting and production partner, to suggest that they risk a charge of sacrilege by giving it a whirl. The key to the triumphant success of their version might have been the decision to assign the job of arranging it not to one of their regular collaborators, such as the great Charlie Calello, but to the comparatively unfamiliar Artie Schroeck, who had been given his first breaks in the business by Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton and whose background was in big-band music.

Was it Gaudio, Crewe or Schroeck who made the crucial decision to switch the basic rhythm from a swinging 4/4 to straight eights, thus transforming the song from semi-jazz to pure pop? My guess would be Gaudio. But it’s the arranger who finds a way to integrate the tempo changes, the pauses and the rubato passages, to blend the strings and the tubular bells, to marshal the dynamic shifts, to make a sudden switch to the minor key, and to emphasise the drum fills — probably played by Buddy Salzmann — in a way that evokes the group’s earlier hits. And whoever came up with the repeated “Never win… never win…” in the backing vocals was a man who knew how to craft a hook.

It was a huge hit, of course. No wonder Bob Crewe was so proud of it. Here it is.

* The photograph above, which appears in the booklet accompanying the Four Seasons/Frankie Valli box set Jersey Beat, released on the Rhino label in 2007, was taken during the session at which “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was recorded in 1966. Left to right: Joe Long, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Artie Schroeck and Tommy DeVito.

 

 

A night with Mississippi Records

Mississippi RecordsEric Isaacson lives in Portland, Oregon, where he founded Mississippi Records in 2003, releasing vinyl LPs that anthologised pieces of music from some of the thousands of 78s he had been collecting, building up a picture of vernacular music during the first half-century of recorded sound. As a child, he had created his own Beatles LPs on tape by copying down the running order of each album and recording every track off the radio on cassette before dubbing them into the correct sequence. That occupied him between the ages of seven and 10. After that, he never looked back. Or perhaps that’s not quite the right way to put it.

He was the host of an event at the Cafe Oto in London last night, presenting three of the artists featured on his label: the singer and guitarist Brian Mumford, performing as Dragging an Ox Through Water, the cellist Lori Goldston, who toured with Nirvana in the year before Kurt Cobain’s death, and the lap-steel player Marisa Anderson. But he opened the evening with an illustrated talk titled “A Cosmic and Earthly History of Recorded Music According to Mississippi Records”.

A man of strong opinions, who doesn’t like saxophone solos and thinks that “very little good music” was recorded between 1933 and 1952, in other words between the depths of the Great Depression and the heyday of Moe Asch’s Folkways label, he proved entertaining company. After playing sounds alleged to be those of a dying star and of the potter’s grooves inscribed in a Grecian urn, he reminded us of the epidemic of “laughing” records that proved popular in the 1890s, a phenomenon which survived at least into the 1950s, when I remember listening to Children’s Favourites, the BBC Light Programme’s Saturday-morning show, in the hope that it would feature “The Laughing Policeman”.

The centrepiece of Isaacson’s address came in a 20-minute collage of film clips edited from his own collection, illustrating African American music more or less in the raw. It began with wonderful footage of the Staple Singers (pictured above), with the teenaged Mavis in staggering form, and included bits of Bo Diddley, street and church singers, the Ronettes, James Brown, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Claude Jeter with the Swan Silvertones before climaxing with Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World” in front of a congregation including Lana Turner and Sandra Dee during the funeral scene from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life. He added with a clip of Nina Simone in riveting free-association mode at the Montreux Jazz Festival (you can find it here, from 37:30 to 44.40).

Of the live performers, I was taken by Lori Goldston’s powerful arco pieces, all skirling double and triple stops, her cello run through a Fender Twin amp, and the way her more delicate pizzicato work made the instrument sound like an oud. Brian Mumford/Dragging an Ox Through Water performed in the dark, without stage lighting, and made me think of what the late guitar visionary Sandy Bull might have sounded like, had he been subjected to the influence of Suicide and Metal Machine Music: tremulous rockabilly vocals completely masked by distortion, heavily reverbed chords bleeding into each other at high volume, a seemingly arbitrary but nonetheless dramatic sense of structure.

The danger is that such music becomes merely picturesque, no more than the sum of its references. Goldston and Mumford get beyond that. But Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone: those are hard acts to follow.

Soft tissues

Artchipel Orchestra 3If you happen to be in Italy, and you get a move on, you can probably still buy the September issue of the monthly magazine Musica Jazz, which has a cover-mounted CD: Ferdinando Faraò & Artchipel Orchestra Play Soft Machine. For several reasons, this is a good thing to own.

Faraò set up the orchestra four years ago, with an unusual mission: to reinterpret the work of British jazz and jazz-rock composers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After making a start on Mike Westbrook, Fred Frith, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen, he moved on to the Soft Machine. Most recently, in June, the orchestra’s guests at the Fasano festival were Keith and Julie Tippetts. Their leader obviously sees something he likes in the music being made in London during an all too brief era when young rock and jazz musicians worked freely together and anything seemed possible.

The CD that comes with Musica Jazz concentrates in particular on the compositions of the late Hugh Hopper, the Softs’ bass guitarist from 1968 to 1973. Five of Hopper’s tunes — “Facelift”, “Kings and Queens”, “Noisette”, “Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening” and “Moustrap” — are among the seven tracks on the 55-minute CD, which was recorded in a Milan studio last December. The other two are Faraò’s “Facelift: Prelude”, an atmospheric introduction to the set , and Robert Wyatt’s classic “Moon in June”, concluding the album in a loose but well organised interpretation featuring Filippo Pascuzzi and Serena Ferrara, two of the ensemble’s four singers.

Faraò and his fellow arranger, Beppe Barbera, aren’t making carbon copies of the originals here. They’re devising revisions that bring unusual resources to bear on the material, exposing facets of beauty that we might not have imagined to be present, even in embryo. To “Kings and Queens”, first heard on Soft Machine’s 4 in 1971, they bring the vocal quartet, a bass riff doubled by Simone Mauri’s bass clarinet, and colouristic interventions by Flavio Minardo’s sitar, Eloisa Manera’s violin and Paolo Botti’s viola. “Dedicated to You…”, which dates from 1969, is successfully rearranged for acapella voices in a treatment inspired by the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s version.

This band has improvisers of substance, too, as we learn from the thoughtful contributions of Germano Zenga’s tenor saxophone, Felice Clemente’s soprano and in particular Massimo Falascone’s unaccompanied alto on an expansive reading of “Noisette”, which Hopper wrote in 1969 and which first appeared on the Softs’ Third in 1970.

I’ve been listening recently listening to Hopper’s solo album, 1984 (released in 1973), and to Canterburied Sounds, the four-CD set of archive material recorded between 1962 and 1972 in mostly informal situations by the various early members of the Softs, and released in full last on the Floating World label. The Artchipel Orchestra’s album presents another perspective on the work of a fascinating musician, and deserves a proper commercial release.

(Addendum: See Alessandro’s reply for information on how to get hold of the relevant issue of Musica Jazz.)

* The photograph of Ferdinando Faraò and the Artchipel Orchestra was taken by Angela Bartolo at the Ah Um festival in Milan in 2011 and is taken from the band’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/artchipelorchestra/

 

 

Gerald Wilson 1918-2014

Gerald Wilson PortraitsThe news of Gerald Wilson’s death this week at the age of 96 reminds us of the sheer scale of his career: he wrote his first arrangement in 1939 (for Jimmie Lunceford) and was still making fine records with his own large ensemble well after the turn of the millennium. In between times he produced an enormous amount of worthwhile music, as is recounted in a good Los Angeles Times obituary by Don Heckman here. But three albums that he made with his own big band for Pacific Jazz in the early ’60s — You Better Believe It!, Moment of Truth and Portraits — have always been particularly precious to me, for the way they blend the influences of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans with a receptiveness to then-current developments in modal jazz and the avant-garde, and for the presence of a bunch of smoking soloists.

Wilson wrote music that swung hard, but he never disengaged his brain or his imagination — Portraits includes tracks dedicated to Aram Khachaturian, Ravi Shankar and Eric Dolphy — and he provided a stimulating framework for such hand-picked improvisers as the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonist Lou Blackburn, the altoist Jimmy Woods and the tenorists Teddy Edwards and Harold Land.

Here’s a clip from the episode of Frankly Jazz, a Hollywood TV show sponsored by Pacific Jazz, that featured Wilson’s band. It shows them performing a snatch of “Blues for Yna Yna”, the hit tune from You Better Believe It! (on which it featured the organist Richard “Groove” Holmes), before going into Wilson’s storming arrangement of Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, from Moment of Truth. The leader picks up his trumpet to kick off a solo sequence that also features Buddy Collette on alto, Blackburn on trombone, Edwards on tenor and Jack Wilson on piano. The drummer is Mel Lewis, the bassist is Jimmy Bond and other recognisable faces include the altoist Joe Maini and the baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz.

If you want more, here’s Wilson’s original version of “Viva Tirado“, also from Moment of Truth, with Joe Pass on guitar and Carmell Jones on trumpet. It’s how one part of LA sounded in 1963. Still pretty hip, if you ask me.

* The photograph of Gerald Wilson is from the cover of Portrait and was taken by Woody Woodward.

Sweet home Kokomo

Kokomo stage 2A Kokomo reunion would always have been high on the wants list of anyone who saw them in their 1970s heyday, when they were consistently the hottest live experience London’s small venues had to offer. This summer it turned into reality, and last night their short tour reached the Half Moon in Putney: just the sort of intimate, informal joint they once rocked, and which they can still sell out with ease.

It wasn’t quite the original line-up. Mel Collins is in the US with King Crimson, Jody Linscott is in Japan, Terry Stannard is long retired, Alan Spenner is no longer with us and, sadly, Dyan Birch was unwell. But Nigel Hitchcock, Frank Tontoh, Glen LeFleur and Jennifer Maidman took the places of Collins, Stannard, Linscott and Spenner on tenor saxophone, drums, congas and bass guitar respectively, while Helena-May Harrison, from the evening’s support band, Man May’d, stepped into the space left by the missing singer at a couple of hours’ notice to bring a fine voice and an irresistible vivacity to the show.

As with any classic vehicle, there were a few creaks and glitches along the way before the oil had fully circulated around the mechanism, but the storming two-hour set would have satisfied anyone’s expectations. The band warmed up with “Tee Time”, an old favourite instrumental, before the singers arrived for “Third Time Around”. Tony O’Malley took over Birch’s lead part on “Yes We Can”, Paddie McHugh stopped the show with “Angel” just as he used to do, and Frank Collins conducted the soul choir on “With Everything I Feel in Me”. Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen supplied contrasting guitar solos of the highest quality, while Hitchcock did the Don Wilkerson/Fathead Newman thing to great effect. Maidman and Tontoh meshed beautifully on “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” and “I Can Understand It”. The audience needed no urging to join in on a celebratory new song called “Back at the Bag”.

They encored with a rolling “Sweet Home Kokomo” and a bit of crisp audience participation on “The Ghetto”. Two hours didn’t seem nearly enough for all the catching up they and we have to do.

* Left to right in the photograph: Tony O’Malley, Neil Hubbard, Helena-May Harrison, Paddie McHugh, Frank Collins, Jim Mullen and Nigel Hitchcock. At the gigs they’re selling a CD put together from a two-track tape recorded at the Venue in 1981: it’s a lovely souvenir and is downloadable at cdbaby.com.

 

Strings attached

Bird with strings 2Charlie Parker’s album with strings was the record that persuaded Gilad Atzmon to become a jazz musician. “Now I wish I’d never heard it,” the Israeli-born, London-based alto saxophonist and bandleader announced at Ronnie Scott’s last night, giving his listeners a reminder of the sort of sardonic humour not regularly heard at 47 Frith Street since the club’s founder died in 1996.

Supervised by Norman Granz in 1949, and also featuring oboe, French horn and harp along with a five- or six-piece string section, the Bird with Strings sessions broadened Parker’s audience but were despised by critics. You can see why: on the face of it, this is the equivalent of covering a monastery refectory’s fine, plain oak table with a fancy lace cloth. And there’s no Bud Powell or Dizzy Gillespie or Max Roach to interact with the greatest improviser of his age. But the weird thing is how great the records sound today: Parker, who never spoke ill of the project, soars above the background, his inventions dizzyingly crammed with substance and always propelled by that extraordinary life-force.

Atzmon was performing some of the pieces from those recordings with his quartet, the Orient House Ensemble (Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums), and the Sigamos Quartet (violinists Ros Stephen and Marianne Haynes, viola-player Felix Tanner and cellist Laura Moody). Stephen’s arrangements update the work done on the original sessions by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, making effective use of the pared-down resources and creating a strong bond between the two sides of what is in effect a double quartet. They recorded some of them in the same format on Atzmon’s album In Loving Memory of America in 2009, and the following year Atzmon and Stephen joined Robert Wyatt on For the Ghosts Within, where the ghosts included the spirit of Bird with Strings.

At Ronnie’s they featured “Everything Happens to Me”, “April in Paris” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, all of which featured Atzmon’s pungent sound and urgent triple-time flurries, with Harrison’s delicate soloing providing the occasional oasis of calm reflection. Unlike those pieces, which remained close to the approach and mood of the Parker recordings, “If I Should Lose You” contained noir-ish sound effects from the string quartet while “What Is This Thing Called Love” came retrofitted with a trip-hop beat and deadpan string riffs. Several of Atzmon’s own compositions also varied the mix, including one called “Moscow”, from a recent album devoted to portraits of major cities, its hint of bombast capturing the sometimes oppressive ambiance of the Russian capital.

They finished with a piece that is, as Atzmon observed, one of the most beautiful of all jazz-associated tunes: David Raksin’s “Laura”, composed for Otto Preminger’s 1945 movie but transformed four years later into a vehicle for Parker’s genius, and the perfect way to end an enormously enjoyable evening of homage and rebirth.

* The photograph of Charlie Parker with his string players is taken from Gary Giddins’s book Celebrating Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), where it was used by permission of Maely Daniele Dufty and the Bevan Dufty Collection. 

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